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Release Date: 08/10/2000
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The Clinton-Gore Administration today proposed significant new protection for tens of thousands of acres of environmentally valuable wetlands across the United States. Under today's action, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are proposing to address a major regulatory loophole in the Clean Water Act by clarifying the types of activities that can harm wetlands and thus, require regulation.

"The Clinton-Gore Administration is committed to protecting America's environment. Wetlands are essential to preserving clean and healthy water for all Americans,” said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner. “Unfortunately, due to a legal loophole that has been exploited, an additional 20,000 acres of wetlands have been lost in this country over the last two years. The action we take today strengthens the protection of these vital resources for future generations.”

“Today's proposal will allow us to go as far as we can through administrative reforms to close this loophole and protect wetlands. We also call on Congress to strengthen the Clean Water Act to fully protect and restore America's wetlands," Browner added.

Wetlands are a collective term for marshes, swamps, bogs and similar wet land areas generally located between dry land and bodies of water. They are an invaluable part of the ecosystem, filtering and cleansing the nation's waters, helping to retain flood waters, and harboring emerging fish and shellfish populations. Destruction of wetlands can increase flooding and runoff potential, harm neighboring property, cause stream and river pollution, and result in the loss of valuable habitat.

Since the late 1700s, over half the nation's wetlands have been lost to development and other activities. Seven states have lost more than 80 percent of their original wetlands.

EPA and the Corps are proposing to regulate certain activities that often destroy or fill in wetlands. Today's proposal will clarify the current regulations under the Clean Water Act, Section 404, to address environmentally destructive earth-moving activities (such as mechanized land clearing, ditching, channelization, and in-stream mining) associated with draining wetlands.

Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Corps issues permits after it completes a careful environmental review of dredged material from proposed projects, including the potential adverse effects on wetlands. This permit program is designed to minimize the environmental impact on wetlands, while also requiring off-setting actions, such as creating or restoring other wetlands.

To protect wetlands, EPA and the Corps first clarified in August 1993 that Clean Water Act permits were required for any discharges associated with draining wetlands. Referred to as the "Tulloch" rule, that definition was challenged by a number of trade associations and overturned in January l997 by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Affirmed in June 1998 by the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Court's decision resulted in a loophole in the wetlands regulatory program, leaving certain forms of environmentally destructive activities essentially unchecked.

Since the l997 District Court decision, EPA and the Corps estimate that nearly 20,000 acres of wetlands have been destroyed and more than 150 miles of streams channeled without environmental review or mitigation.

Today's new wetlands proposal is expected to protect tens of thousands of acres of wetlands from destruction each year. In addition to realizing no net loss of wetlands through the Clean Water Act regulatory program, the Clinton-Gore Administration’s Clean Water Action Plan has already committed to an annual net gain of 100,000 acres of wetlands beginning in 2005 through wetlands restoration programs.

The proposal to change the definition of dredged materials will be published in the Federal Register soon and will be open for public comment for 60 days. A fact sheet, additional information and a pre-publication version of the Federal Register notice are available on EPA's Office of Water home page at: . Click on "What's New" or contact the wetlands helpline at 800-832-7828.

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